PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Thursday sided with former campaign rival and Moderate Party Chairman Ken Block after Block ripped House Speaker Gordon Fox's plan to restructure the state's troubled Economic Development Corporation.
"Governor Chafee and Ken Block have many areas of agreement," Chafee spokesman Christine Hunsinger said in a statement to WPRI.com. "The Governor agrees that the time has come to abolish the master lever. The Governor also agrees that the formal structure of the EDC is less important than what its goals and priorities are and who is tasked with achieving those goals."
Chafee and Fox have been at odds after the Independent governor came out against a plan backed by House Democrats that would rename the EDC and put it under the oversight of a new secretary of commerce who would be added to the governor's cabinet.
Chafee has argued the proposal would add more bureaucracy while doing little to actually improve the agency, which came under fire last year after the 38 Studios video game company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling defaulted on a taxpayer-funded $75 million loan guarantee from the EDC.
Block has been highly critical of Fox for his role in 38 Studios as well as the speaker's opposition to eliminating the so-called "master lever," which allows voters to select an entire party rather than voting for individual candidates. In a statement released Thursday, Block tore into Fox for failing to produce a more substantive plan for economic development.
"It is time to sit down and listen to business leaders and economic experts who don't just talk a good game on economic development, but actually have real-world experience in making it happen," Block said. "Rhode Island cannot afford to continue to rearrange deck chairs on a sinking ship."
Block finished fourth in the 2010 governor's race and is expected to challenge Chafee again in 2014. The Moderate Party founder loaned his campaign $20,000 in Dec. 2012, but didn't report raising any money in the first quarter of 2013. His party reported just $1,800 cash on hand as of March 30.
Hunsinger's statement was released several hours after Block criticized the speaker. She said Chafee has moved to improve the economy by cutting "red tape" for small businesses and offering a plan to reduce the state's corporate tax rate. She said "renaming and reshuffling the EDC will only dampen that recovery" in Rhode Island.
"To spend time, energy and resources reshuffling the structure of the state's economic development apparatus would distract and detract from the governor's ongoing efforts to accelerate this improvement in the economy," Hunsinger said.
An overhaul of the EDC is just one of 18 bills House leadership submitted in its economic development plan last month. Other proposals include bringing back the tax credit for historic buildings, this time capped at $5 million per project and potentially $30 million in total; allowing employers to pay workers biweekly; considering curbs on the overuse of jobless benefits by seasonal employers; and creating a new tax credit for local employers who add jobs after making major capital investments.
"While he greatly respects Governor Chafee, Speaker Fox obviously disagrees that enough is being done to improve the state's economy," Larry Berman, a spokesman for Fox, told WPRI.com. "The 18-bill package submitted by the House leadership addresses many of the concerns that have been expressed to House members about creating a more business friendly state that is attractive to companies looking to expand or locate here."
Last September, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council recommended the state add a secretary of commerce to oversee three existing departments that regulate companies: the Department of Business Regulation, the Department of Environmental Management and the Department of Labor and Training.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.
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